Saturday, 30 January 2010

The Agonist - Once Only Imagined

Right, this is a big review for me. For too long, this has been easy - ripping new arseholes in bands that desparately need one to get rid of all the shit piling up in their albums or showering with praise anything which can make me call them "the Opeth of - ". Which is why this review is where everything before has been heading and everything after will come from. I'd call it my Crisis On Infinite Earths if I thought you were geeky enough to understand what they hell I was talking about. The question is simple: What happens when I WANT to like a crappy album?

First off, let me explain this dilema by saying some things about myself. I'm Alex. I live in Eastbourne, a town in the south of England. I'm seventeen. And I LOVE alt girls. Essentially I go for the "pretty" aesthetic in girls, but a sexy rock chick would make me trample cute geek girls by the dozen if they got in the way. You know, the type with dyed black hair and snakebite piercings and tattoo sleeves that finish on the chest. The kind of girl that Suicide Girls and Burning Angel practically subsidise the production of. And it's not like in metal we're left wanting for these lovely ladies - between Maria Brink and Marta Pedersen we're pretty much covered. However, a bunch of my friends and I were round my friend Sam's house flicking between all of the two rock tv stations the UK has to offer when we saw a music video featuring a distictly female singer. Having missed the first few seconds of the video, we didn't know who it was, and it was fairly badly lit, so we couldn't really see her, but fellow sad teen Joey and I fucking insisted on watching it through to the end because five words were going through our heads: "Google Image, safe search off". What followed was five or so minutes of distinctly average metalcore, at the end of which we found that the band was called The Agonist, though admittedly, the whining of everyone in the room who wasn't a straight male was compensated for by the fact that it just so happens that the singer of the band was literally my perfect woman. Her name is Alissa White-Gluz. LOOK AT HER.




Jesus fucking Christ, it doesn't even matter of you're a woman or a gay guy, there must be SOMETHING there that you can at least appreciate. I mean, seriously, I don't know any graceful or poetic way to put what I feel here, so I'm just going to tell you that the things I would do to this woman would get us both hanged in Idaho. And she's a pretty good vocalist too! Her growls are kind of a halfway point between Angela Gossow and the guy from Heaven Shall Burn and she has a genuinely good singing voice! She seems pretty smart too - her lyrics are socio-political stuff advocating animal rights and criticising the right wingers! And look at the back of her hand in the first picture! That's an X! She's straight-edge! So am I! Most of you will never have any idea how fucking sexy that makes her to the rest of us! It's a good thing I'm so fucking horrible with women, because I'm not sure that a real human could match this.

And yet the album, Once Only Imagined, is kind of lame.

I'll start at the beginning. There's an intro which I suspect they were cheap enough to just distort one of the pre-existing songs to make, before it goes into the first song, titled "Rise and Fall". Yes, this is metalcore so generic you've even heard the song titles before. The metalcore type of choice is American melodeath-inspired first-wave, and you can practically hear the disk straining to turn into an All That Remains album. They do some interesting things with time signatures, and then it goes into the most standard, drop-D verse-clean chorus-breakdown combo I've ever heard. You've heard this all before, people. It's less safe and overcommercialised than, say, The Devil Wears Prada or August Burns Red, and not as breakdown orientated as metalcore has become ever since the melodeath influence was scrapped in favour of chugging, but it's all stuff I've heard done as well before. Have you ever listened to As I Lay Dying or All That Remains? Well, add a heaping helping of Heaven Shall Burn and insert singing sections that, again, are actually pretty good, and you have this. Everything is ticked on the checklist, and in its correct place, with not an interesting new element added. But, hey, evolution is as good as revolution, so let's adjust our expectations and move on.

The vocals themselves are fairly standard. There's no doubt that Alissa can growl, but The Agonist is a real band and they do have a record contract, and she's their vocalist, so if that's a fucking achievement then the bar's dropped lower than I'd realised. Her singing itself is tuneful and quite nice, but it's very nasal and just a tad overused, so it isn't as much of a pleasant change when it is present. It seems to me to be more of an issue of songwriting than of the performance itself, but I'm not sure whether that's the case or that I'm just worried that actual criticism will destroy whatever chance I had of being invited to her birthday party.

The guitars display some good riffs and occasionally a trill or little flourish that promises a surprising degree of technical ability, but overall they're too content to languish in mediocrity, chugging away in palm-muted open chords or strumming powerchords to back Alissa's clean vocals. The drums are so mind-bogglingly perfuctory it's untrue. Seriously, well-done drums are something I really enjoy, and there was no moment on this album where they attracted my attention. It's just so frustrating to hear a band unable to take the songwriting risks they can obviously pull off for the sake of fear or laziness.

All that said, it's still well done. The whole package comes together as something hampered by inexperienced, unambitious and unimpressive songwriting, but the actual performances have value in and of themselves in that they actually have promise. As it is, this CD being their debut, it's still a worthy pick-up for metalcore fans.

Wait. Stop. No. It's happened. It's fucking happened. I actually described the premise for this review to a friend by asking "What's the one thing that can convice a teenage boy to abandon professionalism, journalistic integrity, personal safety...?" and he instantly replied "Boobs". That's what happened. Well I'm no longer going to pretend that this is functional as an album. Every fucking metalcore album released from Massachausets from 2000 to 2006 does this better. The harmonised leads, the breakdowns, the harsh-vocal-verse, clean-vocal-chorus structure, it's the same shit you've heard a thousand times unless you've been living under a rock or just have the attention span of a retarded goldfish. Listen to Shadows Fall while watching a Burning Angel porno and you've got everything this album could possibly offer you done pretty much as well.

p.s. It makes me laugh that this band is signed to Century Media who, judging from their signing of In This Moment, Iwresteledabearonce, Lacuna Coil, Arch Enemy and Winds of Plague, are trying to get as many female-containing metal bands as possible, probably so they can throw a party just so the members of Turisas can lose their virginities.

p.p.s Holy shit, The Agonist's follow up, Lullabies of a Dormant Mind is actually really good. It's experimental, adventurous and dramatic, and every performance has improved. It does new things with metalcore, combining it with jazz, classical, and symphonic metal, adding progressive elements and occasionally breaking out into wonderfully technical riffage. It's better written, it's better done, it's pretty much everything I hoped this album would be, though Alissa's warbling still needs to be reined in more. Nonetheless, it's high-quality enough that I have an excuse to watch their music videos over and over again in slow motion.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

A film review - Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon

I'm very, very glad that I'm too young to have been into horror movies during the 90's self-aware horror wave headed up by Scream and fortunately culled in the form of Freddy vs. Jason. The idea was pretty similar to the recent wave of pseudo-realistic zombie fiction a la The Zombie Survival Guide, where the humour comes from the assumption that we're in on all the in-jokes, without wanting any of the genuine enjoyment that the more sincere genre films inspire. They simply weren't pitching to horror fans, but to people who've read about horror tropes somewhere. They were pitching to those who like the ironic.

And let me get this straight - I FUCKING HATE THE USE OF IRONIC PSEUDO-PARODY. I genuinely like the main riff of Blur's Song #2, and the excessive, overdistorted heaviness, even though it's a pisstake of the grunge scene. Does that make me dumber than the people who listen to it just to feel better than people who actually own a Nirvana CD? Honestly, I couldn't care less, I'm having much more fun with that song than that Pitchfork-reading bastard is, so fuck him.

I mean, I get why a media property would do it's thing in that really self-aware way, because it means that if they fuck up they didn't really fail, it was all just part of the joke, but it also means that it can't really be genuinely enjoyed, because if you do you shouldn't have been watching it to start with. In something where the appeal is as embarassingly juvenile as in horror, this essentially makes your initial market the butt of the joke in hopes of winning over a periphery demographic of hipster fucks. Fortunately, Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon knows its market much better.

Initially billed as a mockumentary of an aspiring slasher villain's preparation for his big first-slaughter night, the film follows a student journalism team documenting the rise of everyday guy, magnificent bastard and wannabe serial killer Leslie Vernon - his home, his psychological mindgames with the lampshadingly generic virginal "survivor girl" and his prepataion for the upcomic killing spree. It's presented in the typical tongue-in-cheek mode we've seen since Spinal Tap, and it has a lot of fun, from certain laugh-out-loud one-liners to the knowing, head-nodding amusement of acknowledging of all the old cliches, like its on a big checklist. The fun a roomful of horror moguls will have with the first and second acts of this film is worth the price alone. There's even a superb line in Leslie explaining the behind-the-scenes action, and the tricks of the trade.

And in the third act, all this is traded in for a total change of pace that both subverts classic slasher features and plays them gleefully straight. This section is for the horror fans - those of us that want to laugh at the over-the-top gore, but still want over-the-top-gore, who want the sex scene to be let to go on a little bit longer than necessary, but also find the lampshade-hanging hilarious. It makes fun of all the slasher stuff, but it also revels in it; it repsects that yes, this stuff is absurd, but it's exploitation, it's enjoyable, it's just damn fun, like when Shaun of the Dead spent its last twenty minutes going totally for broke with absolute sincerity, or how Spinal Tap's songs are actually kind of cool, as well as being spot-on parodies of 70's rock. The movie section of this film rules in the same way that, for a split second, when Jason freezes that woman's head and smashes it on the work top, Jason X was actually worth watching because for a moment it replaced its smirk with a genuine grin of glee. There's even a twist I didn't see coming! (and yes, it's very depressing that that's a big deal when I'm seventeen)

Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon is not serious, but it's totally committed to being both so tongue-in-cheek as to give dental deformation and utterly committed to creating something totally, genuinely, fist-pumpingly awesome. It's not winking at everyone else in the cinema while you eke genuine fun out of what's on screen, it's slasher horror by numbers and, it fucking wallows in it, as opposed to Scream's merely dipping its toes in for the sake of inclusion, like in the end it would have met all its goals was the horror movie riffing replaced with, I dunno, "inspirational" sports movies. If you're a horror fan, and you know a whole bunch of other horror fans, the night in this movie will give you is worth the RRP, let alone the ridicuous mark-down that Amazon is currently asking for. BUY IT.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Bleed From Within - Humanity, and the UK metalcore scene

Okay, before the review proper begins, I'd like to quickly shed the casual readers: this band sounds like The Black Dahlia Murder with Bring Me The Horizon breakdowns in it. Now, a certain percentage of you will be tasting vomit in the back of your throat and around the cracks in your teeth. You can go now. You're excused. From that one sentence, a certain subset of you now know you'll hate this album, and you don't need to know any more. Go listen to the new Dark Funeral, it's superb.

Right. Now I was going to make a giant end-of-2009 review blow-out of dozens of mini reviews - not, you understand, an "end of decade" list, though everyone's talking about this decade like it's about to end and as such, I've been being as utterly insufferable as possible in pointing out that since there was no Year 0, the decade finishes at the end of 2010 and the new one begins in 2011 (This also means you all celebrated the beginning of the 21st Century in the WRONG FUCKING YEAR, RETARDS) - containing a paragraph on every major release of the year and retrospectives on previous reviews. However, this is taking fucking ages, and while I may just finish it someday, probably by 2011, I realised around about the time I was grasping for an excuse to not finish it, that it was missing the point of this blog. I'm not one for just saying good things about the latest well known releases - let's be honest, you already know how you feel about Crack The Skye, so the last thing you need is my opinion taking up space in your empty little minds - but for ripping the shit out of bad albums you've heard of and praising great albums you probably should have heard of. The enormo-review may one day surface, but screw it, a new year just means a slightly different date, so out with the hysteria and on with some scene-setting.

If we have anything to thank metalcore and deathcore for - besides Winds of Plague bringing us all the exquisite Alana Potocnik, who continues the perpexing trend of every woman in metal being at least a "would-after-a-beer-or-two", to our attention - it's that it's gone a long way towards revitalising the UK metal scene. Let's be honest guys, the period of time between the creation of grindcore and the rise to prominence of Bullet For My Valentine was a fallow period for UK alternative music - the country that once birthed Iron Maiden, Carcass and - depressingly - Venom, had to sit and watch as America and Mainland Europe got thrash, death metal, black metal, melodeath and first-wave metalcore. Now, thanks to Bullet, Bring Me The Horizon and Architects, we're back competing on the world stage, and the underground is rife with young, hungry bands snapping at the heels of the American lot - at this point, the european scene might as well not exist in the world of modern metal - in the fields of metalcore and deathcore.

Of course, metalcore has yet to convince one half of the traditional metal community that it still is artistically relevant and the other that it ever was in the first place, and deathcore is still the unwanted child of the alternative music hick trailer, begging only for love as said community puts yet another cigarette out on it's face purely because it was closer than the ashtray, but in the UK, as far as the average young metal fan is concerned, metalcore was only invented four years ago, probably by Oli Sykes and those other guys that follow him around - yes, rest of world, whether we like it or not, Bring Me The Horizon are LITERALLY THAT VITAL TO THE CREATION OF THE NEW UK METAL SCENE - and as such, here, since we haven't had to put up with it for ten years like the US scene has, it's still fresh and interesting. Yes, there is something horribly wrong with a scene that champions Parkway Drive as fresh and interesting, but roll with it.

So of the up-and-coming bands that populate the UK scene, the majority are all coming from the same place - second-wave metalcore, as influenced by other second wave metalcore, so when Bleed from Within rose up in 2007 on the value of being excellently done...well...second-wave metalcore, it by surprise.

That tale was much more inspiring in my head.

Anyway, what I loved about Bleed From Within was that they looked like a proper death metal band with a frontman who could be Mr. Sykes' twin, and brilliantly, this sums up the band perfectly. Singer Scott Kennedy gives high, back-of-throat howls and occasional full-throated roars. The guitars riff like every darkly melodic metal band since At The Gates, and the drums either blast or thud along at a thrash pace, occasionally stopping for the usual rent-a-breakdowns. You've heard this before, people, but the clincher is that it's not badly done at all. The innovation, complexity or quality of the riffs never really rise to a level which would earn them the kind of admiration that, say, Sylosis readily deserve, but the actual melody is fairly well composed and the influence of The Black Dahlia Murder actually helps them separate out from the crowd. And yes, in this case, "influence" is shorhand for "blind, pandering hero worship", but fuck it, when every other fucking band on your scene draws "influence" from a bunch of twatty As Blood Runs Black-aping fuckscoffs, drawing inspiration from a halfway decent band can be what gives a good band a great sound. Unfortunately, this still isn't a great album, or even a good one.

Okay, so considering "riffs written in the music classes of special schools" is the standard for guitar work in second-wave metalcore, BFW should probably be given some kind of medal for not just chugging through the entire album, but even so, beating a shitty standard has never been an impressive goal, doubly so when the last band in the British scene to play this kind of music and still manage this were, you guessed it, Bring Me The Horizon. The overarching musical pieces the songs represent are perfectly functional, but there's no real character here - the riffs are quickly-picked blocks of simple melody without inspiration, the drums just kind of happen. The instrumental performances don't really aspire to do more than the absolute minimum so, fittingly, they employ breakdowns by the bucketload. These are, admittedly, reasonably well done breakdowns, but as is the norm with the modern metal scene, they're overdone to the point of tedium, and for a musical section designed to inspire enthusiasm, this kind of misses the point. The songs themselves do the job, and don't really attempt more. I want to be able to say there's potential here, but honestly, I can't hear it. This is dull music at it's most dire.

There's a reason that Bring Me The Horizon have come up so many times in this review, and it's a reason we'd be remiss to forget - that prior to the avalanche of shite that was Suicide Season, they were really fucking good. Count Your Blessings can't be flawed for it's great riffs, varied vocals and reliable drums, and it's only real problem - the over-reliance on open-string breakdowns - is one that they at least did better than all the other bands for whom this is a problem. Humanity attempts to equal these elements, but it ultimately fails because whereas BMTH's musicianship is equaled by their passion, Bleed From Within simply play the kind of bland, uninspired metal of a band whose enthusiasm far outstrips their artistic vision.